Having fun today has become a costly business—financially, physically, morally, or otherwise. Between the quadrennium of the Sydney Olympics (1997-2000) and the London Games (2009-2012), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the organizing committees for the Olympic Games (OCOGs) more than doubled the revenue their major programs generated, from almost $3.8 to more than $8 billion.1 And in a single recent year in North America, a single sport, football, generated $9.5 billion of federally tax-exempt revenue.2 With data like that, counting the cost of play is surely worth our while.
But some of sport’s costs are more difficult to tally in dollars. “Discussing” the dangers of playing National Football League games on artificial surfaces, former Dallas Cowboys president Tex Schramm thundered to his players, “If we tell you to play on concrete, you’ll play on it!” He insisted, “You’re the cattle, we’re the ranchers. And we can always get new cattle.”3 Would he care that someone described his sport as a school of brutality, involving “the reckless disregard of life”?4
Schramm’s game is one of America’s foremost national sports. Saints and sinners invest in big-screen TVs and special cable packages that allow them to watch a multitude of football games each week during the season. But even as church social halls host Super Bowl parties in order to make friends with people in the neighborhood, some continue to wonder, How much do the games really cost?
The excitement, the glamour, and the glory absorb us, as does the swelling civic pride that comes from having an Olympic, National Basketball Association, or Super Bowl winner. The maimed bodies attract our attention rather less. As the new season arrives we embrace the attitude “Let the games commence” and contemplate new rounds of physical suffering—torn hamstrings or menisci, stress fractures, and concussions or worse—from the comfort of our [lions’] dens and living room sofas. We probably do not think of ourselves as Romans consuming barbarity in the ancient Colosseum. Many of us may have never really processed the price of player injuries. But recent evidence has forced us to consider the broader cost of fun in more of its terrifying reality.
Even as players and the public fantasize about the next Super Bowl, pathologists and other medical researchers are now providing game-changing information about what the job hazard of concussions does to brain tissue. And their warning applies to much more than football, including all “collision sports,” euphemistically described as “contact sports.” The biggest collision sports are football and hockey, but collisions also happen in basketball, baseball, lacrosse, soccer, and other sports. Significantly, boxing, involving but two people in a roped square called a ring, has provided data since the 1920s on the progressive neurological deterioration that comes from repeated banging on and about the head.5
Eric Pelley’s tragic story illustrates what is really at stake. Eighteen years old and a straight-A high school student in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Eric wanted more than anything to become a football player in the NFL. Play brought its share of concussions. His parents were aware of some of them. Since the age of 6 he had taken a lot of hard hits. Most were not considered by the coaches as being hard enough to lead to a concussion, but they were still bone-crunching. He delivered his share of hits to other players as well. But every time he suffered a concussion he would reassure his mother, “Mom, I got another, but don’t worry.”
In the fall of his junior year Eric suffered a concussion from a backyard football game. This time something was different. He stumbled home, suffered from weeks of fatigue and headaches, had difficulty finishing exams at school, quit playing football, but started rugby with a friend’s encouragement. Gifted as he was, he soon gained the opportunity to play on a semiprofessional team and absorb a new complement of traumatic hits.
One day after making a tackle Eric failed to get up. Down on the ground he moaned and held his head in agony. As he rode away in the ambulance he kept muttering, “I’m OK, Mom.” He was back in school just days later, but Eric’s friends realized that something was very wrong. Ten days after the latest injury, eating dinner at home with his family, Eric seized up in midsentence during their conversation. “His eyes roll back and his fists clench tight; he’s dead from a massive brain swell either before he hits the floor or within a couple of seconds of having done so.”6
The names, circumstances, geographic locations, ages, and gender of these tragedies vary. Eric was 18. Iron Mike Webster shielded Terry Bradshaw’s nose and made holes for Franco Harris through 150 straight games and four Super Bowl rings. He died at 50 in the dark of dementia, his brain “a grotesquely tangled slurry of dead connections.”7 Junior Seau was 43.
Girls suffer more, “twice as apt as boys to sustain a concussion playing soccer, lacrosse, or ice hockey. And those games pale beside the mother of head trauma: competitive cheerleading meets.”8 Thirty-seven thousand of them went to emergency rooms in 2011, “many from being dropped on, or kicked in, the skull during aerial maneuvers. Only football results in more catastrophic injuries—and those boys have the benefit of helmets.”9 Having fun today has become a costly business.
Neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, coroner in Pittsburgh, asked Webster’s family shortly after his death for permission to study his brain. The findings of his study were published in 2005 against the wishes of the NFL. But the next year, four years after Webster’s death in 2002, others won his case against the league’s pension board for postconcussion damage. Encouraged, 4,500 ex-players pressed charges against the league about their own permanent brain damage.
On August 29, 2013, the National Football League made a $765 million settlement with more than 4,500 former players and their families, designed to care for the needs of all retired players (approximately 18,000) who are still living and may suffer from this serious medical problem. The league, earning $9 billion a year, will pay those millions out to the people Schramm called cattle over a 20-year period; it admits to no wrongdoing, and is protected from any future litigation by retired players. Having fun has its cost.10
As parents and their offspring consider the thrill of shining on the field, the pride of scholarships to play in college, and the fame and financial gain of the professional leagues, medical science keeps bringing into clearer focus truth that America knew a century ago when the field of play was the scene of fatal injury,11 and Ellen White called football a school of brutality. Ancient and recent warnings notwithstanding, untold numbers of players continue to play the game—from the Pop Warner League (some players as young as age 5) to the thousands of middle school, high school, and college football teams, to the NFL’s 32 professional teams all contending for the next Super Bowl championship.
The dreams of fame clash with more than the physical brutality of our collision sports. Having fun has its intellectual, emotional, psychological, neurological, social, spiritual cost. As Ellen White wrote: “It is a law both of the intellectual and the spiritual nature that by beholding we become changed. The min
d gradually adapts itself to the subjects upon which it is allowed to dwell.”12 Change, for better or worse, depends upon what is the focus in our lives. But the principle stands: we become what we contemplate. The change may take months and years to become evident, but it does finally manifest itself. This world hardly needs more people contemplating, for fun, and steadily morphing toward more violence.
We all need to see what price we are paying for the fun we crave
Paul challenged Philippian Christians to a distinct focus: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8).
Compartmentalization, a gift of sorts, can threaten unified focus: Sabbath belongs to the Lord, Sunday to the NFL. Or stranger still: an Adventist acquaintance in Oklahoma told me about how she played in the bowling leagues three nights a week. When I invited her to come to Sabbath services and the midweek prayer meeting, her response was: “Oh, my life is much too busy for that.”
Another woman would not come to church on Saturday mornings because that’s when all of the good garage sales are. The cost of my fun may be Eric’s and Mike Webster’s brains. Or it may simply be my time with God. For the cost principle affects every aspect of our lives, football and bowling leagues, Bible studies and garage sales, and all besides. It is a statement of the price we are willing to pay, the cost of our fun.
One man I knew chose football over the Sabbath for more than 20 years because his close friend, the football coach at a major university, wanted him on the sidelines with the team during the football season. Eventually he realized the price he was paying, and he requested baptism and a place in God’s church.
One young man I knew was the quarterback of the city’s high school football team. Unfortunately, almost all of the games were played on Friday nights. I started praying for the team to lose. And lose they did. Local sportswriters could not believe it, because the team was rated pretty high in the district’s rankings at the beginning of the season. The only game the football team won that season was played on a Thursday night! My young friend never got his football scholarship to a big public university. Instead, he attended an Adventist college. I have a feeling that this change of plans affected the course of his life in a positive way.
How much do the games cost—in relation to ultimate purpose? Ellen White warned: “Anything that diverts the mind from God assumes the form of an idol, and that is why there is so little power in the church today.”13
We’re all afraid of narrow-minded fanaticism—as if a little indulgence is better than total abstinence from poison. Yet we all need to take inventory of our lives, to see what idols and influences might be drawing us away from what really matters, to see what price we are paying for the fun we crave.
Near the end of his life Joshua challenged the people he led to make a firm decision on where they would focus: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods [of sport so dangerous to physical health, or the bowling leagues that keep you from midweek prayer meeting]. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
How much do the games cost? How many salaries are swollen or shrunk? How many cattle are slaughtered or pastured? How many bones are mended or broken? How many dreams are spawned or dashed? How many hearts are softened or hardened? How many souls are saved or lost? How much do the games really cost?